Faith Matters: Rev. Jesse Jackson Visits Jena

In a special edition of Faith Matters, the Rev. Jesse Jackson talks about the "Jena Six" tensions. The civil rights leader recently met with community leaders in the town and explains why he's counting on faith to unify the residents there.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the broadcast, the Barbershop guys are joined by a former skinhead- turned-anti-hate activist. That's coming up.

But first, every week we bring you our Faith Matters segment where we discuss matters of faith and spirituality. Last week, my colleague Lynn Neary spoke with two local pastors serving in Jena. Today, we want to hear from someone with a national perspective on matters of civil rights and faith - the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Reverend Jackson joins us from member station WDET in Detroit. Reverend Jackson, welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

JESSE JACKSON: Good to chat with you.

MARTIN: Reverend Jackson, you've met with community members in Jena recently, and you're planning to return, as I understand it, for the rally on September 20th. You are both a pastor as well as an advocate. What is your role in a situation like this?

JACKSON: You know, we met with the black pastors, we've reached out to the white pastors, and they would not meet. We met with the mothers - the black mothers, and reached out to the white mothers, I think, who were inclined to meet; but they were dissuaded from meeting. In a situation like this, we try to find a common ground that you're trying to build bridges, but it seems that the political lines have become so hardened until the idea of faith is taking a backseat to raw political muscle.

MARTIN: It's been said that 11 a.m. Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. I think I've heard you say that.

JACKSON: It remains that, unfortunately. And part of our faith inclines us to pursue justice. And justice is always modified by race and mercy, which has a way of softening our hearts. And then, at this point, the lines of - the hearts are fairly hardened, and we keep reaching out because, in the end, what was a children's fight has become an adult struggle.

MARTIN: Last week when my colleague talked with two ministers from Jena - one of them was white and one of them was black - and she had the same experience you did that she had a very difficult time getting any of the white ministers of the town to speak. But eventually one did. What stood out for me in that conversation was the pain that both sides felt. The African-American minister couldn't understand why more people didn't see the behavior as racist and the white ministers said that, you know, his community was hurt because they felt that their town was being labeled as racist, as redneck. Is there a way that you can speak to both hurts or is it really necessary, at a time like this, to choose sides?

JACKSON: Well, you choose to reconcile sides, but you - in some sense, you know, ignorance of each other - they never worship together. Ignorance of each other, ignorance leads to fear, fear to hatred, hatred to violence, and then the hardening of hearts. It is very clear that what should have been a just prosecution for teenagers became, in fact, persecution.

I cannot help but think the idea of the white tree, where only white kids can sit on that tree, and black kids said, can we sit under the tree? That suggested there was some severe separation before this incident occurred. And then when the principal said, of course, you can sit there; and they sat there. And the next day, there were three nooses hanging.

Well, hanging nooses, or hanging swastikas, or burning crosses are hate crimes. It was dismissed as a prank and, in fact, not a hate crime. And the principal dismissed these kids for several days, the school board overrode that principal's decision, and that created a bigger protest.

The district attorney, who was also the counsel for the school board, came to (unintelligible) kids black and white. And said to the black kids, stop the protest, I can determine your fate with this pen, which really was provocative.

On a Friday night about December the 1st, a young man, Bailey, was at a party - black and white kids. He was beaten. He pointed to the six people who beat him - the one that hit him on the head with a bottle. And they would not accept his complaint. Your right to complain is a civil right. They only charged one guy. On the next day, they identified one of the guys who did the beating, who was a 22 or 24-year-old young man. He ran to his truck to get a shotgun. They took it from him. Fortunately, they unloaded it and did not shoot him, which is a good thing. But they were then accused of stealing his property. And you can see where that drama is going.

And by that Monday, there was a shoving match in the school. Unfortunately, a young man, Justin, was kicked by someone. And it was bad thing. But it's not so severe, and that night he was able - they know that they did not keep him in the hospital. He drove to an affair at the school. A bad thing but not deathly. They charged them, young - six young men - charged them with attempted murder and aggravated assault. I mean, these were hyped-up charges, Michel.

MARTIN: As an outsider to the community, what role do you play in going down there? Because as you know, on the one hand, obviously, there are members of the community who want you there, and there are others who will see your presence as provocative. How do you mediate that? How do you speak to that?

JACKSON: Well, you want to heal the wound but you must take the glass out of the wound first. The letter Dr. King wrote from Birmingham jail was written to white ministers. And they reached out to the white ministers to end the Jim Crow practices in Birmingham. They would not - political leaders would not respond, the (unintelligible) were indifferent to the reach out. And once Dr. King led the demonstrations and Dr. Abernathy and (unintelligible).

Then the white ministers finally had a press conference saying he was an outsider, as in he did not belong. And they had accepted the culture of Jim Crow. So there was this obligation to challenge those ministers who were betraying our faith through silence, who in fact, we're backing Bull Connor through silence with his brutal racial oppression. And so we had to go through the sacrifice of taking the risk to arouse the public interest. It could have been resolved obviously, through negotiation, but ultimately, it required confrontation. And a non-violent confrontation exposed the raw cancer that was in that place. I think that Jena, of course, is just a biopsy of the cancer of the criminal justice system.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE. And I'm speaking with the Reverend Jesse Jackson about the situation in Jena, Louisiana.

Reverend Jackson, what do you say to members of the white community who argue that, yes, it was wrong for these kids to throw these nooses on the tree, and, yes, it was wrong for somebody to beat up Robert Bailey, but it's still wrong for six kids to jump this one white kid and to stomp him however provoked they may have felt, and that that needs to be addressed, and that the community needs to accept some responsibility for that?

JACKSON: And it should be addressed, but hanging nooses is not just wrong, it's a federal crime. It's a hate crime. Secondly, we do not know how many kids were in this fight because the arresting officer has not filed charges yet. And since these young men did not have a lawyer to argue their case, they were charged without the arresting officer filing his report.

But beyond that, not only were they charged, but $130,000 bond, and the judge, in effect, said, because I know you cannot reach it. Therefore they stood in jail for months.

Justice has something, Michel, called proportionality, and I might add, the young man who had the shotgun that was loaded, opposed to his being charged because he'd been in a fight the night before. Those who took the gun from him and then unloaded the gun - they were then charged of stealing his property. The young man who was kicked later on brought a gun to school, on school property with 13 rounds in it - as in Columbine, as in Virginia Tech.

All he was charged with a misdemeanor of a $5,000 bond. So the only weapon - has been a weapon of charge has been, a tennis shoe that kicked this young man. It was not right to kick him. It was not right for the fight to take place. But you can - can you proportion a shoe with a rifle with 13 rounds in it? Can you proportion a $5,000 bond for a rifle on campus with $130,000 bond for a fight between kids (unintelligible). I think not.

MARTIN: But clearly the African-American community believes - and presumably others believe that there is just a gross imbalance here. But members of the other community don't. I mean, this has become a question of who is more wrong. How do you persuade people in a situation like that, I'm saying apart from the legal system because that's not your role in this, as a minister, as a counselor, as a person who speaks other people's pain?

JACKSON: Well, I met with the sheriff and asked the sheriff to call the mother who works at Wal-Mart - we knew some people who worked with her, appears to be a very decent lady, Justin's mother - and apparently there was some consideration for...

MARTIN: Justin, being the white student who was beaten, the reason that the Jena Six are being prosecuted.

JACKSON: Right. We reached out to her because I feel that if the white and black mothers, as mothers, would meet, there'll be a greater source of proportionality in that meeting. (Unintelligible) of Justin, if he and Mychel Bell, who are in jail - if they met these two 17-year-olds, then they got with the regrouping get along. But they've been deprived of that because the white ministers are not showing the kind of moral leadership to say let's black and white sit together.

Well, in fact, on Monday, the black ministers were told there was a meeting to be held at 3 o'clock. And they went and then the doors were closed on them. So there needs to be some continuous efforts at bridge building and seeking reconciliation. But so far, it seems that the culture is trumping the faith.

MARTIN: What is your message to the people of Jena? And what is your message to others who are interested in the events that are going down there?

JACKSON: Well, if we had a functioning civil rights division in the Department of Justice, it already would have been dealt with. But as for now, we must protest a persecution of six juveniles, 15 to 17, have labored under a seven to $130,000 bond for a fight.

Secondly, without any substantial evidence - I mean, the arresting officer has not yet filed a report. He is now the police chief. The district attorney's office, the chairman of the school board, (unintelligible) all over the place. And I would hope that the judge would recuse himself because of the statements he has made. And that the next case, the Bailey case, and the next case to come up, the Ted Shaw case, will be over the change in venue.

In the meantime, and it perhaps need some federal outside intervention. I've asked Congressman John Conyers to consider having a hearing in Jena, so people can make transparent what is happening so people can begin to judge on some fair basis. When I talked with people in Jena, it seems that cultural expectations are different than the standard of law.

MARTIN: And when you go to Jena next week, what will be your message there?

JACKSON: Well, it will remain one of hope and that the judge will send these young men back to school and not send them to jail. There'll be a reach out for white and black parents to try to find some common ground.

The white and black minister I hope be able to meet, we'll ought to be able to use this crisis and turn it into an opportunity. I think it's the moment that the white church shouldn't miss. And - when Dr. King was in Birmingham, the white church missed that moment. It was on the wrong side of history, and therefore Dr. King in jail had to write a number of letters from a Birmingham jail. And we fought for the right to vote. The March of Washington and all these evangelicals will offer our prayer at the March of Washington in 1963. They missed another great moment. They put culture above Christ. Christ is about forgiveness and redemption and making whole again. If you don't trust your faith then there can be no redemption. And you will therefore not be made whole. I kept referring that the Scripture said that if my people who've called by my name will humble themselves. Then if they would do that, then god will forgive their sins. Then they will hear from heaven, then go out and heal the land. So we need to have the healing. We must first (unintelligible) the ways and take the glass out of the wound.

MARTIN: Reverend Jesse Jackson is a minister, a civil rights leader and founder of Operation: Push, The Rainbow Coalition. He joined us from member station WDET in Detroit. Reverend Jackson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JACKSON: And thank you.

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